Under other circumstances, Presto would have given up a long ago; a never-ending march in the dark along a stinking maze of tunnels was not his idea of a fun way to spend an afternoon!
There was nobody to speak to; he'd long lost sight of Smar, as the two Trog Clans kept separate. It was easy to remember how it had felt to be truly alone, and nothing would ever come close to that again, so the Magician kept reminding himself that Hank and the others would come after him once they'd help Eric.
But after hours of marching, even Presto found it hard to keep his hopes up. Perhaps the others had gotten lost, perhaps they were too far behind; there were any number of possibilities. And there was always a chance that they'd run into some sort of trouble.
A thin smile crossed his face: they were already in trouble! Trouble seemed to follow them in this stupid place! They couldn't even get across the dumb mountains without something like this happening!
He wondered yet again where the others were – had Dungeonmaster come to help them? Had the old Guide given them any clue to help defeat these horrible creatures?
He could still remember the nasty, smug smile the Clan Leader had given him as they'd left the Lair: this Clan though they had it made – the human who "Made Steel" and enough of the sacred metal to build a new empire.
He shuddered. How had they been dumb enough to get involved? How had they been dumb enough to get captured?
(This isn't helping, Presto!)
There was nothing to do but keep his head down and hope the others hurried up.
(What about the Hat?) What about the Hat? I can't reach it, so there's no point in talking about it. (Uni used it with just her mouth, remember!) So?(I was just saying that…) Well, don't!
He didn't want to think about the Hat.
The Hat couldn't help.
And even if he could reach it, what was he going to do? How was he going to get it to work properly and get rid of these Trogs? It was much more likely to get rid of him again, or worse…
I don't want to think about it.
He trusted Hank. The others would come and help.
He walked on.
The constant shuffling noises and the monotony of the tunnels had lulled Presto into a kind of trance and he had stopped watching where he was going, so it came as a nasty surprise to suddenly be dragged forward and pushed into a brightly lit Hall that was full of Trogs; thousand and thousands of them, and the smell was so strong that it made his eyes water. But even as he was pushed forward towards the slave pens, he couldn't help looking around in wonder.
It was beautiful; far too beautiful to be the work of the Trogs. The Hall had been hollowed out of the living stone, polished until smooth and inlaid with multicoloured gems and minerals. Strange symbols and motifs, that had an oddly Pagan feel to them, were drawn out in stone. And on the floor, under the muck and dust from thousands of Trog feet, the Magician could just make out part of a huge mosaic, depicting a giant blue Dragon, with three heads and huge cobalt-blue wings.
Glancing up to the ceiling high above, Presto stumbled in surprise. Instead of more glittering stone and smooth rock, all he could see were bits of steel dangling down: swords, arrows, pans, pots; pretty well anything that had ever been made of steel. They swung gently as if stirred by a light breeze, but any sound they made was drowned out by the harsh, guttural noises from the Trogs.
He was dragged forward through the crowd and pushed into a cage, were there were another seven humans, as well as Smar the Merchant. Each other others looked at him with great surprise; they were all older, and all looked important, one even wore the uniform of a Zinn Guard.
His hands had been untied, so he pulled the Hat out of his belt and looked down at it.
(C'mon, Presto! Use the damn Hat and let's get outta here!)
But he didn't use the weapon, in spite of the situation. He didn't have to use it yet. It wasn't too bad; he still had time to get out of there without resorting to the Hat. The others wouldn't be long.
So, instead of using about the Hat, the Magician looked round the Hall nervously, wondering yet again where the others were. But his attention was distracted by all the activity. The mood in the Hall was tense, Presto could feel the underlying hostility as if it were a thick blanket around his shoulders. The different Trog Clans were all watching each other. It wasn't going to take much to get them at each other's throats. Presto grimaced as he remembered what the Leader intended to do, once he had enough steel. He gulped. Please hurry up, Hank.
The chattering and sniffing continued for a number of minutes then, finally, a hush fell on the Hall. Everyone was looking towards one of the entrances. Presto turned to look too.
There was the clang of metal, and the King appeared. It was bigger than the others, and had a small, steel crown on its head. There was a ruthless look in its eye that Presto hadn't seen before in a Trog. By its side were three burly bodyguards that growled and hissed at the others. The King looked around the Hall slowly, and nobody dared move.
This was no ordinary Leader; this creature knew what it was doing, and knew how to keep its subjects in order. This was another Trog that wouldn't hesitate to extract a violent and bloody revenge on its enemies; Troglodyte or not. The Magician shuddered.
But as he glanced at the other Trogs in the Hall and it was clear to Presto that all the Trogs hated the King; and they hated having to give up their best slave each year. It wasn't a very stable form of government; all it was gonna take was a little push and the whole system was gonna come crashing down. He looked back, towards the Trog Leader that had brought him. That one was gonna make his play for power soon. When it had enough steel, it would be the one standing on the platform with the steel crown, feasting on the flesh of its one-time comrades.
Presto gulped back the sick feeling. He desperately hoped the others were gonna show up soon and help get him out of this, before the revolution!
There was a whisper behind him, and the Magician turned. Smar had been talking to the other men, and they were all looking at Presto with great interest. He guessed Smar had told them about Eric as "The One Who Makes Steel". For some reason, the Magician's heart gave a tiny lurch at the thought of his friend. He'd better be alright…
During the trip to the Hall, Presto had assumed that whatever as at the other end would naturally take a long time to start properly. All the formal events he'd been to had involved lots of talking, and speeches, and occasionally a bit of singing too.
But to his great alarm, the King just glared once more round the Hall and shouted:
'Where are my Gifts!'
His alarm turned to full blown panic as a burly Trog Guard reached into the cage and pulled the Magician up onto the platform.
He stood there, dwarfed by the King, looking out across a sea of a thousand Trog faces.
(Is now a good time to use the Hat?) Well, no… not yet… let's wait and see what happens. (WAIT! What for? The dinner gong?)
He tried to stand up tall, but the King didn't look impressed.
'Who brings me this, thing!' it asked with an angry hiss.
The Leader of the group that had brought him pushed its way through to the front, looking up at the King and Presto.
'You?' said the King, the anger in its voice made Presto shake. 'You dare to give me something like THIS!'
The Leader didn't answer, and it glared at the Magician with a nasty smile. He could almost hear it chanting the word "Steel" to itself.
The King gave a low hiss and turned to Presto, licking its lips. The Magician gulped.
'I-I do magic,' he stammered. (Oh, that's just great, Presto! Well done!) Well, I had to do something! (But you're gonna have to use the Hat, dummy!) Maybe not, perhaps the King will…
'You? Magic!' it said. There was a ripple of laughter round the Hall and Presto felt his cheeks flush in shame. The laughter hurt more than he'd thought it would, because they were right. Him, doing magic; it was a joke!
He was too scared to try.
That was the cold, hard truth. He'd tried to tell himself that he could cope wit the Hat, he'd tried to believe that he was the one in control, but that was a lie, as the Hat seemed to have a mind of its own. And since the trip back to the Underworld he hadn't even used it. What if the Hat wouldn't work? Or worse, what if it DID work; the way it worked last time. He couldn't face that, not again.
Behind the King, one of the guards took a small step forward, it's clawed hand reaching for a knife, but still the Magician didn't move.
(You've gotta DO something, Presto!) Yes, but…(C'mon, Presto! Do something!) Yes, but…(Please, Presto. Get yourself out of this. You can…)
In spite of the acute feeling of despair, Presto nodded. It was too late for the others to come, he had to help himself, but what was he gonna do? How was he ever going to control the Hat? His hit rate was one in six, at best!
He remembered what the Knight had told him: Consequences, there are always consequences to magic. And he knew so very little about how the Hat actually worked…
He had to concentrate. But what did he want?
Usually, he had relied on the Hat to come up with something good, that fitted the situation, like an air-craft carrier or a six foot rabbit. But this time, he decided he wanted a specific type of thing. Nothing complicated, nothing dangerous. He had to make something that would distract them from dinner. And there was only one thing that seemed more important to food: Steel.
As the Guard drew closer, Presto finally waved his hand over the Hat and said:
'Abra- cadabra, we'll make them a deal,
I want something big, that is made of steel.'
Presto finished his spell, and the Hat glowed faint green. Nothing happened for a few seconds, and the Magician grinned at the Trogs, worried. Those pots were very close by.
Then there was a shudder from the Hat and a shimmer of pale green light. When he looked round, he discovered he was standing beside 10-foot, steel statue of the King Troglodyte, in incredible detail. A hush spread round the room as the King himself moved towards it, and gave it a tentative tap with a claw.
It blinked, and turned back to him.
'You are The One Who Makes Steel,' whispered the King in awe. He lifted his hands and turned to his subjects. 'All praise The One Who Makes Steel!'
A cheer went up that made Presto wish he had no ears, but he couldn't deny the wonderful, exhilarating feeling of relief that poured into him. He'd done it! It had worked, just as he needed it too!
He'd done it! Now all he had to do was…
'Give me more!' demanded the King.
The Magician caught his breath, not wanting to stay here for a moment longer than he had to. But the Guard with the knife was still close, so tried again, waving his hand slowly over the weapon, concentrating hard on what he wanted. More steel…
He produced a small cylinder, made of solid steel, that the King could hardly keep his eyes off. But it wasn't satisfied. More steel…
Over and over again he produced steel; each of different shapes and sizes, and every bit gloated over by the King.
'Just wait 'til they discover economics!' he murmured to himself.
The King showed no signs of growing tired of all this steel, but Presto slowly began to get tired. The more he produced, the more he hurt. Again and again, he concentrated hard, the strain was almost to much for him. His head hurt, body hurt, his whole soul ached in a way he'd never felt before. Magic seemed to be sucking the life out of him. The Hat had never affected him like this before, but then, the Hat had never worked so well before, either.
Finally, and just before he passed out with the effort, the King stopped him.
'Enough… for now,' said the King Trog with a manic smile, surrounded in more steel than it could have imagined.
Presto gratefully lowered his Hat, but as he looked round at the awed Trogs below the platform he saw something that made his heart almost stop. The Trog Leader that had brought him was looking absolutely furious, and was whispering to another of its kind. The other Trog nodded and turned to leave, quickly pushing its way through the crowd. Presto suddenly felt sick.
Eric! They've realised the mistake! (You've gotta stop it!)
But before he could move, the King said:
'There is no need for the other Pledges! Prepare the pots!'
The Magician jolted round in surprise, to see Smar and the other with shocked looks on their faces. This was NOT supposed to happen!I have to do something, quickly, but…
'Hey, no, wait a minute,' Presto said. 'I can make other stuff, anything you want, you don't have to eat them. Look!'
But no one was listening to him. The Guards were already moving to the cage, and he could see Smar cast a desperate look in his direction. The other Trog had already reached the back and was heading back down the tunnels to the Lair and the unfortunate Cavalier. What was he going to do. He had to help the Pledges, but what about Eric? What can I do? I can't do both…
In spite of his panic and indecision, Presto somehow managed to think logically for a few seconds. He should stop that Trog, but Hank would have gotten the Cavalier out of the Lair long ago. And if it met the others in the tunnels, Hank was sure to drive it off.
So he had to help his fellow slaves. The Hat would work, if only he could use it one more time, he should have enough strength for that. One more spell to help the others.
The whole Trog community was baying for their blood, and no one in particular was watching him, except that Trog Leader. He had to be quick and lifted the Hat. He should…
'STOP HIM!' bellowed a voice from close by.
The King had suddenly realised its mistake, and had turned back, its claws out. He only had a few seconds.
'Hat, make as much steel as you can!'
Presto knew it had failed even before he'd finished the words. He hadn't concentrated on what he wanted, the way he'd done before. He didn't even have the chance to see what it did; the searing pain in his head made him pass out.
Hank knew they were close; he could smell it. Those Trogs made a stench that penetrated everywhere. He had given up hope of getting to Presto before he reached the Hall, but they still had no time to lose. They needed to see what they were dealing with, and they could form a plan to get their friend back.And then get back for Eric…
And then get back for the Cavalier.
The Ranger glanced at Sheila as she walked beside him, her eyes constantly focused on the ground. He knew she was desperate to help their lost comrade, and it was only his orders that were keeping her from going off on her own. He could sense her uneasiness, but there was nothing he could say to her that would help. The decision was made, and they had to keep going to the end.
Slowly, the tunnel got wider and the smell grew. From a short way ahead, the unicorn started to whinny, and everyone sped up, hoping they were close.
Sure enough, round the next corner was a beautiful, bright Hall, with lights gleaming off the walls, and Hank could see Trogs all standing, facing the other way. He watched for a few seconds, trying to form a plan to get past all those creatures, when it struck him there was something odd about this.
The Hall was strangely silent and it took him a few moments to realise what was wrong. None of the Trogs were moving. And they were all a dull grey, not the usual dull green.
The Ranger tiptoed forward, but they still didn't move.
He walked up to the back of the nearest one and gave it a very, very small prod with the tip of the Bow.
He prodded it harder, with the same effect, as the others came up to join him.
'Hank, what's happened?' whispered Diana. 'Why are they standing like this?'
The Ranger shrugged.
'What if Presto is like this too?' said Sheila suddenly, her voice shaking. 'We have to find him!'
They moved forward through the crowd of inert Troglodytes, desperate to find the Magician. He would never forgive himself if something had happened to Presto.
Much to Hank's relief, there was movement and colour ahead, on the raised platform. In front of a group of more still Trogs, a small group of humans were huddled together, with the green-robed Magician sitting on the floor in the middle of the group, holding his head.
He looked up at the Ranger and gave him a huge smile, which Hank happily returned.
'Boy, am I glad to see you guys!'
Sheila rushed up and flung her arms round him.
'We were so worried,' she said. 'What happened? Why are all the Trogs like… that?'
The Magician didn't answer; instead he looked up towards one of the men by his side. Hank felt a faint flicker of recognition; hadn't they met before somewhere?
'The Magician's spell turned any Trog holding steel into steel itself,' said the man with a grin. 'And when the Dwarves return, they well have a fine time melting them down! It will keep them in tempered steel for an age!'
'Dwarves?' asked Hank, confused. No one had said anything about Dwarves.
'Yeah,' said Presto. 'Trogs keep Dwarf slaves. There are some in every Lair.'
Dwarves, trapped? Back in the Lair? They had to help!
'Do not worry,' said a man in a grimy uniform. 'We have a chance to free our fellow slaves, and we will take it!
'It is the race to the end,' explained the first man. 'The Dwarves will not be able to free themselves without our assistance, but there are few Trogs left now in this part of the Realm!' He gave Presto a hearty smile, that the Magician returned, then pulled a spear from one of the statues behind. He gave Hank's hand a hearty shake. 'And I am proud to have met you again, Ranger. You are welcome in my village at any time. You have done us a great service.'
Hank was too surprised to speak. He hadn't done anything! But the man was gone before the Ranger had a chance to reply.
'It's OK, I'll explain later,' Presto said with a small smile. 'And since it's all OK, and you found Er…'
Hank could see as the realisation hit Presto; who was missing.
'Where's Eric?' he looked round in fear. 'You did get him outta there. Didn't you?'
Hank wouldn't look him in the eye.
'You came here, to get me? You left Eric, and came after me?'
'We couldn't leave you with the Trogs,' said Hank.
Presto choked back a cry.
'We only had time to help one,' added Sheila.
The Magician looked at him as if he'd just killed Eric with his bare hands. How was Hank ever going to live with that?
'But…' spluttered Presto. 'They know he doesn't make steel! They sent one back to the Lair!'
Looking back afterwards, Hank couldn't remember clearly what he did or said next. But less than a minute later they were all back in the tunnels, moving as fast as they could, with only a vague hope that they were going the right way. Uni tried to follow the trail back, and she gave them at least a good idea of which tunnel to take, but it was taking far, far too long.
If only they had more time, if only they'd not been so slow…
Dungeonmaster's words were loud in his head. There will only be time to help one. Well, they'd helped him, they'd helped Presto and now they were going back to see if anything was left of the Cavalier. The one he'd left behind.
It was strange how much he cared; Eric could be such a jerk, and such a source of trouble, but the thought of him dead was terrible. They had had their differences, but they were friends.
He cursed himself for making the choice. This was the worst decision he'd made as leader. Presto had been perfectly fine, and hadn't needed their help at all. They had gone after the wrong one! How could he have thought that Eric would be OK? How could he have been so blind? This was the Cavalier they were talking about! The one who never did the right thing unless he absolutely had to, the one who always slunk along at the back, ready to run at a moments notice… Why hadn't he helped the weaker one? There was the quietest reply in the back of his mind: It's because you like Presto better than Eric.
They ran on, the little unicorn always galloping ahead. He couldn't keep track of the time and none of them dared to slow down and rest. It really was the race to the end.
He didn't dare think. He didn't dare do anything but keep on moving.
Finally, they found another tunnel that taper out to a Trog Lair, and they stopped at the tunnel entrance.
'This is the place,' whispered Sheila. 'This is the right Lair, but…'
Hank looked round in confusion. It looked like a riot had taken place. Anything that could be broken had been smashed into small pieces. There was the acrid smell of smoke too, rather than the stench of those creatures.
But it was quiet, as quiet as the Hall had been, and too quiet for Hank's liking. There could be any number of Trog Guards lying in wait. They had to get this over with quickly.What's happened?
Hank hesitated, he didn't want the others seeing what might have happened to Eric, the Barbarian in particular. But there was no was he was gonna persuade Sheila or Presto to wait while he checked things out alone, and the Thief headed off down the ramp without waiting to hear what he said.
Before he followed her, Hank turned to the others
'Diana, go with Bobby. Check the rest of the Lair and find any more slaves.'
The Barbarian looked angry, but the Acrobat understood what Hank meant, and guided Bobby towards the back, with Uni following close behind.
Presto didn't move at first, but looked up at Hank blankly, then together they followed Sheila down the ramp. Their main goal was the lower cells, where Presto and Eric had been held, but as they drew close, they could see something had happened. It wasn't how Sheila had described it. The wood on the doors was splintered, as it if they'd been forced open by an axe. The Thief herself had stopped by the door to the cells, waiting for him.
Hank took a slow breath, and forced himself go first. He stepped slowly over the smashed bits of wood, towards the second door, and paused at the entrance before daring to look up.
Eric was lying face down, close to a smashed cell, his bruised right hand sitting in a pool of blood. There were three deep gashes in his shoulder, and the Cavalier's body was peppered with smaller cuts and bruises.
The Ranger was almost sick, and so overwhelmed with guilt that he didn't notice anything else, he was only able to stare at their friend. He just wanted the ground to open up and swallow him. This was all his fault. Eric was…
Sheila had pushed past, and knelt beside the Cavalier, and was gently stroking the back of his head.
The Cavalier groaned. For the second time that day, Hank was almost overwhelmed with relief. Eric was alive!
But as the Cavalier tried to move, Hank realised just how close he'd come to disaster. Eric was very weak and could hardly move without help. Hank glanced anxiously back to the ramp-way. They had to be quick. Who knows how many Trogs could be left here? They couldn't afford to hang around and find out.
'He needs help,' said Sheila desperately, looking round at the Ranger with tears in her eyes. 'Hank, please, what can we do?'
The Ranger didn't have a good reply; the look of accusation in her eyes was unmistakable. He'd let this happen, in spite of what she'd said.
'I'll try the Hat,' said Presto, kneeling down too. But he was holding the Hat as if it was gonna bite. It looked like it was an extreme effort to say anything connected with the weapon. Still the Magician managed to murmur something, there was a green glow and a small bottle dropped out of the Hat into his hand, and he let the Cavalier have a tiny sip before…
'Hank,' said Diana quietly, from just beside him.
The Ranger managed to drag his gaze away from the Cavalier to look round. The Acrobat was holding Eric's armour and Shield.
'We didn't find anyone, anywhere. I think we're the only people within miles! There were some empty cages and this, at the back of the storeroom. The vault had been smashed, and everything else was gone.'
She couldn't take her eyes off Eric, but behind her Bobby was staring at something else.
Hank turned to see where the Barbarian was looking. Behind the cage was the remains of the Trog guard, lying on its side, impaled by a single, short sword.
Hank stared at it for a couple of seconds. Eric couldn't have…could he? He couldn't have done anything like that. He hated combat, he ran at the first sight of trouble. He couldn't have fought the Guard. This was Eric, for goodness sake!
He looked again. The sword was lodged deep in the Trog's back. Hank shuddered. He could just see Eric, frightened and desperate enough to do that. Perhaps it had its back turned and he'd just lashed out…
Hank was in shock. He would never have guessed Eric had it in him. That the Cavalier had killed it was bad enough, but knowing one of his friends was capable of this level of violence shook him to the core. Perhaps it was the Trog Water, perhaps it had done something to Eric… or perhaps he'd just wanted revenge. The Ranger didn't like that thought. And he couldn't shake the feeling that this was all somehow his fault. If only they'd come for their Cavalier first.
'Nice… of you to…drop by,' said Eric. He was standing up on his own, but Sheila and Presto were close by. He seemed taller, thinner than before. Diana gave him back his armour and his Shield and he dressed in silence. Then Sheila gently put her arms round him, and gave him a quick hug.
'We're all glad you're safe,' she said as she let go.
Eric, though obviously embarrassed by the show of affection, managed a smile as Presto handed him the cape back.
'Thanks, guys,' he said, fixing it around his neck. He took a deep breath and pulled himself up tall, assuming the carefree-Cavalier pose he so carefully cultivated. 'So, who's tell me what happened, then?'
His tone was light, but there was an edge of smugness about it and he was looking round at the others expectantly, as if the question was rhetorical. That was enough to turn Hank's stomach. The last thing he could stand to hear at that moment was the Cavalier boasting about what he'd done.
'We've seen the Guard,' he snapped, gesturing at the remains of the Trog, 'and I think we can figure out what you did, without a description.'
Amazingly, Eric looked hurt at Hank's words and the Ranger might have asked, but for the disgust inside him.
There was an unpleasant silence.
'What is that?' asked Sheila, pointing to the ground where Eric had been lying.
There was a large, copper key, and Eric slowly bent down to pick it up, the faintest hint of a smile on his face. He gripped the key tightly for a few seconds, as he was surprised to see it, then turned back to the others.
'It's just a… souvenir. I suppose.'
A key? It made Hank think back to the riddle: Help those unable to help themselves. Find the key to their trust. Was this what Dungeonmaster had meant, this key…? And what allies, Dwarves? What HAD happened here?
He looked towards his friend, suddenly feeling ashamed of always thinking the worst. There was obviously more to tell than Eric had let on, and no doubt they'd get the real story soon enough; the Cavalier could never resist a boast. Hank smiled. It was good to see Eric back on his feet and relatively OK, and he should tell him so…
Suddenly Bobby let out a yelp, distracting the Ranger.
The Barbarian had pulled a phial of liquid off the floor and had opened up the stopper.
'Euw! How gross is THAT!' said Bobby loudly 'It's…ouch!' He looked round at the Acrobat who'd poked his arm. Sheila was scowling at him too. The young Barbarian looked sheepishly up at the Cavalier.
'Gee, sorry Eric!'
Eric held up his hand.
'Look, just promise me you'll never, ever, EVER tell me what's in it. I want to forget this whole thing as quickly as possible.'
The others nodded.
'But are you gonna be alright, Eric?' asked Diana. There was no flippant answer from the Cavalier this time.
'I don't know,' he replied. 'I guess it's true when they say what doesn't kill you only makes you stronger' Eric turned to Hank. 'But next time, we go ROUND the mountain, OK! Now, let's just get outta here!'
Dungeonmaster watched from the dark shadow of the door as they walked away, his fingers steepled.
'You have done well, Cavalier,' he murmured. 'You found the Key to their trust, and Dwarf-Lords do not forget. One day, you may yet be glad of this. For it is true "what does not kill you will make you stronger". You must all be stronger, to face the coming challenges…'
Next: Wild Ride (very soon!)
The kids FINALLY catch up with Krin, only to find he's not as helpful as they thought he'd be.
These cute little creatures are straight out of the D&D Monstrous Manual, including their obsession with steel. But the specific details of their society were made to fit the story.
The "In the Hall of the Mountain King" is the title of one of the Peer Gynt Suites by Edvard Grieg. You know, the one used in Manic Miner. And the Chapter 1 title is a mis-quote from Tolkien.
Yes, I know this has been a long time coming. My apologies for being so lazy! But I got there in the end.